The gift that keeps on giving

by Susan Cohen Smith

Sometimes the rewards of teaching come years after retirement. My former student, Edward Chung, is for me, the gift that keeps on giving.

A ninth grader struggling in my French 1 class submitted his written work accompanied by the most fascinating drawings. The following year this young man fortuitously appeared in my Art 1 class. During the subsequent three#1 years, he went on to win first place in almost every citywide art contest in the Philadelphia district. To work off his detentions, he did a drawing of the school, which was reproduced and given as a parting gift to retiring staff members.

Edward is a naturally gifted traditional artist, whose ability to faithfully record exquisitely detailed images from memory is surpassed only by his expressive, emotionally charged, technically excellent, stunningly beautiful creations. As a child in Hong Kong, he began drawing on his bedroom wallpaper. For him, artistic expression has always been a powerful vehicle for translating his vivid mental imagery into tangible visual reality.

In Edward’s senior year, I had more than my share of “Service Learners:” students who have enough credits for graduation but need to fill up their rosters. Not really wanting to serve, a restless Edward needed something constructive to do but it couldn’t be another contest or mural for the school. I had the perfect project for him. My husband had framed out an area off our second floor with the intention of creating a door that would lead to an outdoor deck. For two years, I suffered the sight of the Tyvec building material where the door would go. I had the idea of painting a trompe l’oeil mural of a door to hide the offensive Tyvec panel.

My husband cut a piece of plywood the size of the opening and brought it to school. Edward ably sketched a drawing of a door with a large glass window. For the window’s reflection, I handed him a crude snapshot of the buildings

Original Photo 2001

Original Photo 2001



Edward (right) and helper with completed painting in school.

across the street from where the painting would be installed. It so happens that across my street was the rear of the Art Deco Reliance Insurance building, an area of greenery, a parking area, and a bagel shop with striped awning. To my amazement, Edward did a convincing, detailed sketch of the structures, as they would appear in the window’s reflection merely by looking at the poor quality photo. Next, he executed a skillful representation of the door in outdoor acrylic paint. He obligingly used the same distinctive color paint to match our front door.

In March 2001, my husband hung Edward’s painting of a door on the outside of our house and it has been there ever since. It has been quite a neighborhood attraction, even more so now that the building across the street has turned into the Perelman Annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The site that Edward painted is where the rather unattractive addition to the Perelman has been appended to the old building, much to the chagrin of the neighbors facing it. Edward’s faux door painting serves as a reminder of how the site used to look.

Over the years, the painting took a beating from the elements and was beginning to fade. I needed to find Edward to restore the mural. With my son’s help, I located him and renewed our acquaintance. Edward was pleased to hear from me but was sad to have to tell me that his career as an artist was going nowhere.

He had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Digital Media and had not been able to find a job in his field in three years. He did not want to visit his family in Hong Kong because he was ashamed of his situation. His mother always told him that I brought him luck and success in high school. So I took on the daunting task of helping him to find a job in a crowded field during the worst economic recession in recent memory.

I scrutinized his resume and website and tried to learn ways to improve them. Never having had experience in web design, it was an education for me as well. What I noticed about his latest work was that it lacked the imagination and mesmerizing attention to detail that his high school work had. Edward’s greatest asset was his ability to elevate ordinary, mundane subject matter into extraordinary works of art, an element totally absent in his college work. I also recognized that he had lost all confidence in himself as an artist. I know firsthand that Art School has a way of tamping down youthful exuberance. My alma mater had a similar affect on me many years before.

I don’t accept credit for it, but within three months of our renewed relationship, Edward Chung landed what he calls his “dream job.” Within a very short time, his enthusiasm and zest for life returned.

 Edward Chung continues to keep in touch with me. He seems to be enjoying his life to the fullest. Knowing that I played a small part in his success is probably the most gratifying reward a retired teacher could hope for.

#4#5 Ta DaHe successfully repainted the trompe l’oeil painting of the door on site, perched on the roof outside of my second floor. He spent many hours in the sun after work on this endeavor that dragged on longer than expected because of weather-related delays. After a painting session, Edward would join us for dinner. He entertained my family with lively conversation and impressed us with his gustatory sophistication.

Edward Chung continues to keep in touch with me. He seems to be enjoying his life to the fullest. Knowing that I played a small part in his success is probably the most gratifying reward a retired teacher could hope for.

 Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at

President Obama’s back-to-school speech inspires teens to achieve



by Christopher Paslay


The brouhaha surrounding Barack Obama’s speech to our nation’s school children, to use a cliché, was much ado about nothing.  In the end, the President’s address was not only squeaky clean but quite inspirational to boot. 


Using examples from his own life and from the lives of other students who have overcome serious educational roadblocks (such as poverty, brain cancer, and English language issues), the President explained that each and every one of us can achieve success and reach our goals. 


“Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up,” Mr. Obama told the audience.  “No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.”


No matter what your political affiliation, the idea of personal responsibility has to sound appealing.  I have to admit that for me, Obama’s words were quite refreshing. 


“But at the end of the day,” the President said, “we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”




On Wednesday I played the speech for all of my classes.  I was impressed with my students’ level of interest in Mr. Obama’s words.  There was pin-drop silence in the classroom for 17 straight minutes, and I could see my 11th graders were not only listening but hearing


It’s moving to see so many young people looking up to the President as a role model.  In Philadelphia, there’s no doubt that Barack Obama has a much stronger connection to students than George W. Bush (or any other recent president) has ever had, and this is a wonderful and powerful thing.


For homework I had my students write the President a three paragraph letter in response to his speech (not the most original assignment but a good back-to-school ice breaker).  In it they were required to introduce themselves, state their goals and how they were going to go about achieving them.  They were also given the opportunity to react to the President’s speech—state whether they agreed or disagreed with what he said.


I was very pleased with the response I got from my students.  Their letters were sincere, and their goals were commendable (and surprisingly realistic).  Many talked about staying focused in school so they could graduate and move on to college or a technical academy.    


One student majoring in Culinary Arts wrote, “I would like to take my talent to California and work as a chef at the French Laundry.”


Another student was shooting for perfect attendance, and planned on graduating with honors and going on to pharmaceutical college.   


One of the most moving letters was from a girl who was diagnosed with a learning disability.  She wrote, “As a young girl, my mother was told I would probably never be able to read. . . . It was always my goal to prove that a person with a learning disability can do great things and overcome their disability. . . . Your speech inspired me to continue my ways in school so I can succeed and help my country.  Thank you!”


Next week in class we are going to edit and rewrite these letters, and then email them to the White House.  My students keep asking me, “Do you think the President will read them?  No way!  He doesn’t have time for that.”


But I tell my students stranger things have happened.  I’ve written many letters to many different people (famous and ordinary), and have gotten some surprising responses; two years ago, after I had my Creative Writing students write a 30 page screenplay and a query letter to a Hollywood literary agency, one of my kids got a reply.  The agent ended up passing on the script, but my student was in the clouds for days.  Later in the year I got a call from his mother, explaining that he was getting serious about writing films.     


President Obama’s back-to-school speech was a positive experience for my students.  I am glad I was able to sift through the political controversy and listen to it in my classes.